By James Steindler
When out hiking in the Rocky Mountains, you are likely to see, or at least hear, an American Pika. These cute little furballs look like a cross between a mouse and a baby rabbit; and if they weren’t wild, could very possibly replace hamsters and guinea pigs as childrens’ most smothered pets. Luckily for them, they are untamed.
However, due to climate change, the species’ numbers are decreasing in parts of North America. “There was some research that came out around 2010 that found that pikas had disappeared from historically occupied sites in the Great Basin,” explained Megan Mueller; the disappearances were linked to climate change. Pika are found in western North America and up into Canada.
Mueller is a Conservationist Biologist with Rocky Mountain Wild (RMW). RMW and the Denver Zoo teamed up to form the Colorado Pika Project.
Compared to humans, who have a body temperature of 98.6 degrees fahrenheit, pikas have an average temperature of 104 degrees. “We can get up to around 105 to107 before we experience hyperthermia and death. And since a pika’s resting body temperature is 104, they can also get up somewhere around there — but it’s a smaller increase,” explained Mueller. “So they just don’t have a lot of leeway there.” She added that if a pika is left on the surface in direct sunlight at 80 degrees, they will die.
That is why they spend most of their time in the shade of rocks littering scree fields, from 8,000 feet to the tops of 14ers. While the furry critters can still find cover in the talus amid warmer temperatures, it may get too hot for them to venture out to collect food.
Most of the data is collected by volunteers. Each year volunteers go to trainings where pikas live to learn how to check for signs that the animal is still active in the area. “I think it’ll probably be around 150 volunteers,” said Mueller, referring to this year’s trainees. There have been volunteers collecting data since the early days of pika monitoring, 10 years ago.
On July 17, the North Fork Lake Creek trail at Independence Pass served as the volunteer training ground. Mueller estimated that roughly 25 folks attended that training.
Throughout the field season — from the time the snow melts to the time it flies again — volunteers are responsible for monitoring roughly 200 sites in Colorado. “They have to hike to the site,” said Mueller, “then they survey the site to find out whether pikas are present.” They collect pika scatt to run genetic tests, survey characteristics of the habitat and place temperature data loggers in the talus which record the temperature every hour all year long.
“We look at whether pikas are disappearing from the sites that we monitor over time and the second thing is we want to develop predictive models to predict whether or not pikas are going to decline with climate change,” said Mueller.
“Our ultimate goal is to get to solutions but we don’t know enough right now,” continued Mueller. “If they are declining [in the southern Rockies], trying to figure out what solutions to put in place can be really challenging with climate change.” That is why it is important to know why the populations might be declining.
“Some of the solutions could be about helping pika populations be more resilient to climate change through management,” Mueller stated. A drastic example is, if juveniles can’t disperse, “when their mothers kick them out,” because it’s too hot on the surface, people could retrieve the young and place them in a suitable habitat. At that point, it would basically be a rescue mission which may not be sustainable. Therefore, the Pika Project’s team encourages folks to cut down on their carbon footprint to avoid such extreme measures.
Fortunately, the project has not detected significant decreases in populations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. However, the sites surveyed up until 2018 were only on the Front Range. As of 2018, the study has expanded into the White River National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park, “we don’t have a long term data set for those areas yet so we’re really starting to build that baseline,” said Mueller.